Here’s another chapter from my never-finished book The Zen of Godzilla. This chapter is about karma. And karma is a difficult concept. I feel like what I’m saying in this chapter can be easily misconstrued. But I think it’s important.
This chapter is the best example of what I wanted the book to be like. The connections between the Godzilla stuff and the Buddhism stuff in this chapter are pretty clear, I think. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to come up with a whole book full of such clear connections.
In several of the Godzilla films, after a gigantic monster completely trashes the city, someone on the ground, some scientist or politician or some such person, will express the opinion that, “We have brought this destruction upon ourselves.”
The best example of this comes at the end of the original Japanese version of the first Godzilla film. In a scene that was cut from the American version of the movie, Professor Yamane, the paleontologist who advises the Japanese military about Godzilla, has a stirring speech. “I don’t believe that Godzilla was the last surviving member of its species,” he says. “If we keep on conducting nuclear tests it’s possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world again.”
Cynics might see this as simply a set up for the dozens of sequels that followed. But there is no compelling evidence that the producers of the first Godzilla film intended it to be the beginning of a series. Notice how Yamane says, “if we keep on conducting nuclear tests.” This is the official English translation approved by Toho, the company who made the film. The original Japanese dialogue is “Moshi suibaku jikken ga tsuzukete okonawareru to shitara ano Gojira no dourui ga mata sekai no dokoka ni awaretekuru kamo shirenai.” The verb tsuzukete okonawareru is what the translators have given us in English as “if we keep on conducting…” In Japanese the subject is left unstated. So Professor Yamane does not specifically say “we” as such. The verb tense here indicates something like “if nuclear tests are continued” without specifying who is continuing them. But the context of the speech and the way it’s delivered leaves no ambiguity. The professor clearly indicates that all of mankind is responsible for the testing, not just one specific country.
The US version of the first Godzilla film ends with Raymond Burr, whose parts were filmed separately in California and added over a year later, saying, “The menace was gone. So was a great man. But the world could wake up and live again.” The “great man” referred to here is Doctor Serizawa, the intrepid scientist who sacrifices his life to destroy Godzilla. Note, though, that the Americans removed the reference to nuclear weapons, thus obscuring the entire point of the film. But the powerful anti-nuclear subtext could not be removed even by making this drastic change to the closing dialog. Plenty of people still got the message anyway. I know I sure did when I watched it.
Raymond Burr makes up for this at the end of another Godzilla movie, the American version of the film Godzilla 1985. This was the long belated direct sequel to the original Godzilla. As in the fifties, the scenes with Raymond Burr were filmed later and then added to the American print, but do not appear in the Japanese version. Burr’s final line in the American version of Godzilla 1985 is, “Nature has a way sometimes of reminding man of just how small he is. She occasionally throws up the terrible offspring of our pride and carelessness to remind us of how puny we really are in the face of a tornado, an earthquake or a Godzilla. The reckless ambitions of mankind are often dwarfed by their dangerous consequences. For now, Godzilla, that strangely innocent and tragic monster, has gone to Earth. Whether he returns or is never again seen by human eyes, the things he has taught us remain.”
Although this speech was added by the US distributors it expresses a rare understanding of the original tone of the Japanese film. Japanese Godzilla films have often expressed these kinds of ideas. In Godzilla Vs The Thing the residents of Infant Island, where Mothra (aka The Thing, in the US version) lives point out that the Japanese have brought Godzilla’s attack upon themselves by allowing the testing nuclear weapons that devastated their island and brought the monster Mothra to life. “You dared play with the fire of the gods,” they say. “Your people are being punished (by Godzilla), their time has come!” This dialogue is delivered by a member of a primitive society to a group of Japanese scientists. Since Japan has never conducted any nuclear tests the message is clear, it is modern civilization as a whole, not just one specific country, that is responsible for nuclear testing.
And it isn’t only in Godzilla films where human folly is responsible for the appearance of monsters. Other Japanese monster movies often contain the same idea. In Gappa The Triphibian Monster (aka Monster From a Prehistoric Planet) the gigantic Gappa monsters stomp Tokyo to the ground when greedy promoters steal their baby. This is also a very common plotline in the Ultraman TV series produced by my former employers, Tsuburaya Productions. In episode ten of the first Ultraman series, the monster Jiras is angered when fishermen dump dry ice into the lake where he lives in order to make the fish jump into their nets. The monster Jiras, by the way, is portrayed using the body of the Godzilla costume from Godzilla Vs The Thing with the head of the Godzilla costume from Monster Zero stuck on it and a big frill around its neck to disguise the join. In episode fourteen of that same series a monster that feeds on pearls attacks Tokyo after greedy pearl dealers overfish the waters where it lives. In episode thirty-two, the hot water generated by an electrical power plant creates a super-heated monster.
This stands in stark contrast to the usual American idea that someone else is always to blame, no matter what. In the US-made Godzilla film of 1998, for example, nuclear testing is responsible for the appearance of the monster. But it’s not American nuclear tests, it’s those darn Frenchies who cause the monster to appear. Never mind that the Americans have conducted far more nuclear tests than any other country on Earth.
The attitude expressed in the Japanese films is a good example of how Buddhism has subtly influenced Japanese culture making its way even into the nation’s monster movies. It’s a subtle evocation of the concept of karma.
In American-made horror and science fiction films something quite different often happens in this regard. The usual plot of an American horror film commonly involves someone who transgresses some taboo and thereby brings the horror upon themselves. For example, in any good mummy film, some too-curious-for-his-own-good explorer always ignores the curse placed upon the mummy’s tomb and thereby brings about violent retribution from the mummy he has offended. In Gremlins, the kid ignores the warning that he should never feed the cute little gremlins after dark and they turn into hideous, destructive monsters.
American horror films are based on the notion of sin, not karma. There are some interesting similarities between the idea of sin and the idea of karma. But they are ultimately very different.
Sin is the idea that God has his own notions of what is and is not acceptable behavior. Some of God’s ideas make sense to us humans. Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not lie, these ideas are pretty easy to understand. But some of God’s other rules are entirely arbitrary. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy? Don’t eat pork or shellfish? Then there’s everyone’s favorite, have no other God’s before me.
In some Christian interpretations of God’s Will, God forbids us to masturbate or have sex before marriage. But it’s hard to understand why God would even care about such things. As if to underscore the way we in Christian nations view sex as sinful, in American-made slasher films crazed killers often go after teenagers simply for the sin of having sex. Fans of these films know that if you see a couple on screen getting it on it’s an almost sure bet that at least one of them, usually the girl, is going to end up getting killed.
Films in which disaster falls upon people because they’ve broken a curse — a common trope in American-made horror movies — seem to me to be expressions of the notion of sin, not karma. They are expressions of the dilemma many believers in the notion of sin find themselves in. We don’t really understand why there’s a curse on the mummy’s tomb, but we want to know what’s in there so we go look inside. Then we have to suffer for having done something that a supernatural force regards as bad, even though we can’t understand why it was bad. Such are the wages of sin. Similarly, we have no clue as to why God decided certain activities were sinful and forbade us to do them. They certainly feel good and don’t appear to hurt anyone. But if we do them, God is sure to rain down his holy retribution upon us.
Karma is different. Karma really literally means “action.” But the Buddhist notion of karma contains the idea that any action we take will have some kind of reaction, and in some cases we can define these reactions as consequences.
But the karmic consequences of our actions are never arbitrary. They are not the decisions of some unknown and unknowable God who has his own peculiar notions of what we should and should not do. The karmic consequences of our actions are exactly like the reactions we can see and test for ourselves in the physical world. When we drop a stone into a pond, ripples spread out from the point of impact. If we drop a small stone from a low height, the ripples are small and disappear quickly. If we violently throw a big-ass boulder in the ocean the way Godzilla hurls a boulder at Ebirah the monster shrimp in Godzilla Vs The Sea Monster, the ripples are gigantic and the water takes a long time to settle back down.
God doesn’t intervene to make gigantic waves from the impact of a small pebble or reduce the turbulence caused by a big boulder. The reaction is always commensurate with its cause. Karma works the same way. There is no cosmic judge up in Heaven doling out rewards and punishments.
There’s an unfortunate tendency, though, for Western people who start reading about Buddhism to misunderstand the idea of karma as a “blame the victim” sort of mentality. So should we blame the people of Tokyo for Godzilla attacking them?
No. We should not. Because there is a huge difference between the people of Tokyo saying they feel they only have themselves to blame for Godzilla attacking them, and people who are not from Tokyo pointing at that city and saying, “It’s their own damned fault that monster stomped all over them.”
Karma should only ever be pointed at oneself, and never at anyone else.
I have often said in my other books and on my blog that I believe that whatever we get in this life is, at some level, something we wanted or needed. Like the people in those Godzilla films, when I say this I am only applying it inwardly to myself. I never look at someone else in an unfortunate situation and say, “That person deserved it.” But I often look at myself when I’m in an unfortunate situation and ask, “In what way did I want or need this crummy thing to happen?”
The strategy of pointing at others and saying they wanted or deserved whatever awful thing they got doesn’t help anyone. So don’t do it. This is a very important point. Don’t pass it over, please.
On the other hand, when I apply this view to myself, my own suffering becomes much easier to bear. I remember one of the first major incidents when I tried applying this way of thinking to myself. It was in the early 1990s. I was brutally physically attacked on the streets of Akron by people I did not know at all for reasons I have never been able to comprehend. As far as I could tell the attack was absolutely random.
One very hot and humid night two friends of mine — one male and one female — and I walked to the center of the Y-bridge, which spans the valley of the Little Cuyahoga River and divides North Hill from the rest of town, to watch the fourth of July fireworks.
On our way back to my friend’s house we were confronted by two very large, very angry, and very intoxicated men who wanted to start a fight. When we wouldn’t take the bait, they started pounding on us two guys anyway. Thank God they left our female friend out of it. After they’d beaten the snot out of us for a while, some people from the neighborhood came out to see what the commotion was about. Several of them seemed to know these guys and yelled at them to cut it out. One middle-aged gentleman stepped between them and us, allowing us time to run away. I have no doubt at all that these guys would have killed us if they’d had the chance.
After the attack I thought to myself, “Buddhism teaches that what we get in life is somehow something we wanted, how does that apply here?” I felt that in some way I must have some degree of responsibility for what happened. I did not, and indeed I could not fathom exactly what were the causes and conditions I set in motion that resulted in the attack. But I felt there was some level of personal responsibility there.
Now please note that I did not feel I was entirely at fault. The guys who beat us up created their own karma that night, which they have certainly felt the effects of since then, even if they don’t comprehend that fact. Harada Yasutani Roshi expressed this view by saying that any time you find yourself in a situation in which you appear to be an innocent victim you should know that you have at least 50% responsibility for what happened to you.
So Godzilla creates his own karma when he steps on Tokyo. Perhaps getting attacked by Megalon and King Ghidorah and Biollante and all the rest is the result. Yet he couldn’t destroy Tokyo in the first place unless the people of Tokyo, and by extension the entire human race, hadn’t done something to him first. This is very complicated stuff. Which is why it isn’t very useful to try to figure out the exact cause of your situation.
There’s an old Buddhist parable that goes like this. A guy gets shot by a poisoned arrow. He calls a doctor to help pull it out. But before the doctor can get to work the guy starts asking, “Who shot the arrow? Which tribe did he come from? Why did he shoot the arrow? Who made the arrow? What kind of poison was used?”Of course anyone who did that would die before the doctor was able to help him. This story is usually used to illustrate the futility of trying to figure out how and why the world was created and other such metaphysical conundrums. Buddha said we just need to work on our own situation right now without worrying how we got here. But the parable can also be used to point out the futility of trying to figure out the details of your own karma.
One might assume that this sort of thinking would lead to self-blame and make me feel even worse. But that’s not what happened to me at all. When I began framing it this way to myself I felt like less of a helpless victim and more like a person who could do something active to improve his own life. And I did. I moved to Japan and incredible, wonderful things started happening. For the first time in my life I stopped feeling like a victim of circumstance and really took control of my fate. Had I not started thinking this way I might still be living in Akron feeling sorry for myself.
I don’t even care if this idea is objectively true or not. Of course, I believe it is or I wouldn’t use it. But even if it turns out I’m wrong, this way of thinking has been so incredibly useful I still wouldn’t give it up.
I never, ever apply this sort of thinking to others and say, “Ha! They wanted that awful thing to happen!” However, it has been extremely useful to me to look at any difficult situation I find myself in and try to see it as the outcome of my own actions.
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